How to feel grateful when you don’t think you can

thanks2Today was my first real American Thanksgiving, and I have to say that I am totally sold (not that I thought I would ever turn down an excuse to have a big feast!). I love this holiday’s focus on spending time with family and friends, and the idea of having a special day every year to remember to give thanks for all of the blessings in our lives.

As Verily shared today, gratitude needs to be a habit that we practice all year round, not least because it comes with some amazing health benefits. Did you know that “human beings are typically biased toward negative information”, and that the benefits of making a conscious effort to overcome this negativity bias include better mental health as well as a stronger immune system, amongst other things? The interesting thing here is that research shows that positive thinking doesn’t necessarily come naturally to most people, meaning that it has to become a habit that we prioritise, just like exercise and healthy eating.

thanks3It seems like this has become common knowledge recently, with apps like Get Gratitude to help, as well as plenty of gratitude journals and daily planners featuring gratitude sections. My friend just launched a beautiful daily journal called Bloom Lovely that asks you a simple question every day to encourage reflection, alongside inspiring quotes to keep you focused on the important things in life. I love journaling, and am a big believer in the therapeutic power of writing and reflecting on your day.

This Thanksgiving, I’ve been thinking a lot about what we can do when we find ourselves unable to focus on the positive, or when it feels like a big emotional strain to think of things that you feel grateful for – and I think I have the answer.

I’ve always thought of myself as an optimist, and prided myself on being able to make the best of a bad situation. Living through a rough few years, though, I’ve realised what it’s like for positivity to not always come naturally. It took me a while to accept that that was just the way that I felt and I couldn’t change it by giving myself a pep talk. Once I did accept this, though, I found a new way of injecting some colour back into my world that I think is pretty magical, and I would love to share with you.

Every day, I started trying to find one beautiful thing – whether that was a sight, a taste, a smell, or a sound – to write down in one short sentence at the end of the day in a simple pocket-sized notebook. One time it was a freckle on my daughter’s knee, another it was a flock of noisy seagulls as they flew low over a bridge in the bright afternoon sunlight, another the delicious taste of olives and a cold glass of excellent pinot grigio.

I wasn’t trying to force myself to think of something that I felt grateful for. I certainly wasn’t trying to ‘think positive’ or ‘look on the bright side’. In fact, the habit didn’t require anything of me at all, emotionally – all that was necessary was for me to observe the world around me more carefully, which was actually a pleasant way of distracting my mind from the things that made me feel sad.

thanks1The glorious thing about this habit is that while it only takes only a few minutes to do every evening, it has the power to completely transform my outlook for the entire day. In the back of my mind I’m always watching out for the magical moment that I would like to record; some days when the sky is grey I have to look a little harder to see something special in the quality of the light or to hear the beauty in the sound of rain drumming on windows, and other days I feel dizzy with the flood of beautiful details everywhere I turn. As Louisa May Alcott says in one of my favorite quotes, “It’s amazing how lovely common things become, if only one knows how to look at them.”

I’ve found that keeping what I call my beauty journal has started to create a habit of open and receptive watchfulness; it doesn’t even matter if I occasionally forget to write down my daily beautiful thing, because the habit is becoming a natural reflex.

When you think about trying to develop a more positive outlook on life, it can sometimes seem like an impossible task. But I’ve discovered that gratitude and happiness stem from living in the moment and simply observing the world around you. So if you’re ever feeling down, don’t try to force yourself to feel any other way – try simply looking out for one beautiful thing a day and see what happens.

Back to the garden

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It’s strange that I find myself thinking about gardens when I’m on a boat crossing the Atlantic surrounded by a great expanse of water on every side, without a green growing thing in sight. It’s strange that I find myself suddenly able to think clearly about the trauma of losing my father before he had reached old age as I get further and further away from the place where it all happened.

Or, perhaps it’s not so very strange; I had heard that you need distance from people, places, and experiences before you can start to process them properly. I suppose I just didn’t want to believe it, because distance is the one thing that completely terrifies me. I want to fight the distance. My father will always be far away, separated from me now, against my will. Inevitably, my memories of him can’t become clearer, but rather are destined to fade slowly, crowded out by new memories. The human mind is limited. This idea fills me with a choking panic, and makes me grasp at the familiar like a homesick child.

“My father’s body is a garden, and something evil is growing there. It clings to his bones and digs its fingers deep into the marrow. It has spread through the whole plot of land and emerged in unlikely places, choking everything in its path. It grows with an unnatural speed and blocks out the sunlight so that he gets paler and thinner every day.” I wrote this back in early 2012 soon after my father was diagnosed with cancer.

Pink roses

Gardens have always been incredibly important to my family. Whenever I think about my childhood, it seems to me that it was filled with picnics and meals outdoors, building dens on lawns, reading in the tree house that my parents had built for us as a surprise at the end of a summer holiday one year, long afternoons spent barefoot and deep in play-imaginings in our garden or a friend’s.

I often think about the beautiful Easter Day lunch we had in 2011. I don’t know what was actually in bloom that day, but in my memory the lavender is out and the air smells lovely. We set the table and chairs out on the sunny patio and heaped it with spring flowers and brightly painted eggs, and food – so much good food. My whole family was there, my sisters and my parents, and the man whom I loved, who would later become my husband; all was right with the world.

Of course you always know somewhere in the back of your mind in some intellectual sense that we are all mortal and life is never perfect, but that Easter meal felt pretty damn near to perfection. I can’t remember this day, or so many others, without the whole process ending up feeling like some kind of self-harm because it hurts so badly that I can’t ever get back to that place when we were all together, strong and healthy and loving each other in the spring sunshine.

I worry that I can’t remember clearly enough one moment, that he’s slipping away, and the next moment when I do remember, I find myself fantasising about time travel, as if willing myself back to those moments could do anything other than give me an almighty head and heart ache. “I know why we try to keep the dead alive” Joan Didion wrote in her brilliant book on grief, The Year of Magical Thinking, “we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us.” For a while, all I could remember during the panic attacks that came at night (I had to cling to my husband until they passed) was my father’s strange far away dying eyes, his body lying curled in the bed like a dead sparrow. Whenever I saw him in dreams at first, it was after the cancer had taken hold, not the strong and healthy man he was until the year before the diagnosis. When you focus too hard on remembering something, it slips away from you like a dream. What happened to 24 years worth of memories, all those memories of one of the most important people in my life?

We are golden, we are stardust, and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.

Dogwood

In the few years between my father’s diagnosis and his death, whenever there was the remotest scrap of sunshine or warm weather we would wipe down the table on the patio and eat outside in the garden. Long lunches, candle lit dinners spent together as the moon rose overhead. Sometimes he couldn’t eat much, and often he wouldn’t speak much either, but he would sit with his eyes closed, soaking up our company and the peace of the garden around him.

And then my little sister started painting gardens. A group of deer, heads poised, a crumbling folly emerging from the fog, a yew tree raising its branches into a golden fractal mist. Order and chaos finding balance with each other. They were lonely, hopeful paintings, and they expressed what I kept trying – and failing – to express with my words over and over again. There’s a terrible beauty, a pattern that refuses definition. It’s like dying and being born, it hurts with the white-hot pain of labour. It feels like being split open and washed up on the shore of a strange new land – disoriented, lonely, grateful, angry, full of awe and wonder. 

I spent a lot of time in the hospice garden pushing the pram back and forth, trying to get my eight month-old daughter to go to sleep for her naps. It was a beautiful garden, filled with different types of roses, hollyhocks, herbs, honeysuckle, and purple clematis. Round and round the garden, like a teddy bear. I felt disconnected, separate from the real emotions and sensations of my body. The day I tore the petals off a rose in anger and frustration I felt as if I was watching myself as an outsider, surprised by the violent outburst. As we sat in his room on the last wedding anniversary my parents would spend together, we could see white and blue Canterbury Bells – the flowers that my mother had in her wedding bouquet – outside the window.

The day that he turned a corner for the worse the daily reading happened to be from Amos: “I mean to restore the fortunes of my people Israel; they will rebuild the ruined cities and live in them, plant vineyards and drink their wine, dig gardens and eat their produce. I will plant them in their own country, never to be rooted up again out of the land I have given them, says the Lord, your God.” At another time in my life perhaps I would have found comfort in this small thematic coincidence, and seen it as a sign, but as it was it felt flimsy and if anything, I resented it. All I really wanted was for my father to look me in the eyes and tell me he loved me, that he wasn’t scared, and that everything would be alright. On the one hand, how natural for a scared and traumatised child to look to their parent for comfort – a lifelong instinct, hard to fight. On the other hand, how unreasonable of me, a grown woman, to need this reassurance from a dying man, when he was the one facing the unknown, his bones filled with screaming pain and his body failing him minute by minute, too slowly, too soon.

Wild strawberries

Scraps come back to me when I’m not looking for them; pressing my palm against his and marvelling at how big his hands were, feeling the rough, square tips of his fingers with my own. Balancing on the arm of a sofa, flinging my arms wide in mock drama as we mimed singing the Queen of the Night song from the Magic Flute and then collapsing into his chest in fits of laughter. The way he bounded down the stairs and jumped down the last few with a huge thump. Leaning against him, sleepily, as he put me on the toilet before bed. The time he slept on the floor next to my bed when I had growing pains in my legs so badly that I couldn’t sleep, and woke up crying from the pain. The way he pulled up my tights and swung me in mid air when he was helping me get dressed in the morning. The time I realised I was too big to do this anymore, and wanted to turn back the clock to stop myself from growing up. Listening to Van Morrison in the car on a trip to Ireland we took together, marvelling together at the way the Irish sky can melt from pure sunshine to raging thunderstorm in what seems like just a few moments.

All Souls Day was misty and grey this year. After mass in the small chapel in the cemetery we walked slowly and carefully over to stand sentinel by the graves of our loved ones, holding flickering candles and waiting for the priest to come by with his holy water and blessing. We didn’t talk to each other, but there was a strange comfort in seeing the other mourners huddled around in the mist, each one of us carrying the burden of our grief in companionable silence together.

As the fractal waves carry me away from my homeland to a new phase of my life (I can’t stop the thought from coming, even as it delivers its quick punch to the gut – a phase without dad), I feel deeply and oddly resistant to finding meaning in it all. I resist the well-meaning phrases that come to mind in a situation like this – he lives on in your memory, he is still with you, he is at peace now. For now, I want to leave this all open, a mystery that I don’t have to understand. Perhaps, as Rilke said, I can learn to love – or at least live with – the mystery, like a series of locked doors or languages I haven’t learned to speak yet. I have a feeling that we never get over a great loss, we just learn to live with it like an old war wound that never quite heals. I’ll never stop longing for that Easter garden, searching for a way to get back there, and I think I’m okay with that.

Pink rose

When life runs away with you

peace, quiet, calm, still, slow, river, lady's lace, English countryside, riverbank, wildflowers

Some time late last year I read an old blog post by the wonderful Erin Loechner (Founder of Clementine Daily and Design for Mankind) from 2012 about “slow blogging” that really struck a chord:

“We live in a world of more; this much is obvious. More things, more information. More time-saving tricks we use to find the time to uncover even more time-saving tricks. We live in a world of Pinterest, where visual images shoot out like firehoses of pretty, manifesting themselves in the parts of our brain we reserve for planning elaborate feasts and fetes. We have hundreds of RSS subscriptions to blogs creating amazing tablescapes and Halloween costumes and DIY floor lamps. And we take it all in, bookmarking each project for future use when ‘someday’ is finally today.

Yet friends, I fear that someday will never come. Because there will continually be more to do, to see, to buy. And our someday file will slowly become outdated with a new sea of ideas and thoughts promising to fulfill our lives in ways we never dreamed possible.

I want less. I want less for this site; I want less for my life. I want to return to the days when I didn’t feel the need to ‘keep up’ with the Internet. Where less truly was more, where editorial calendars didn’t exist and the words ‘I should totally blog this’ were never uttered.

…This year, one of my personal resolutions is to live a slower, more thoughtful (meaningful?) life. Less travel, more adventure. Less work, more challenges. And I need this to translate into all areas of my life: Less blogging, more learning.”

I’ve mentioned her philosophy of slow blogging before, and it’s one of the reasons I’ve not been pushing myself to write posts here with huge regularity recently. As you’ll know if you’ve explored this blog a little, I’m kind of obsessed with the concept of slow living, because I’m convinced it could make the world a more just and happier place. I recently came across this beautiful extract from Carl Honoré’s book, In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed, on Kinfolk, and the whole thing is well worth a read: “Beyond the great productivity debate lies what may be the most important question at all: What is life for? Most people would agree that work is good for us. It can be fun, even ennobling. Many of us enjoy our jobs—the intellectual challenge, the physical exertion, the socializing, the status. But to let work take over our lives is folly. There are too many important things that need time, such as friends, family, hobbies and rest.”

My family and I went to see Avengers: Age of Ultron last night, though, and I found myself thinking back to this time last year when I created this blog and the actors who were wrapping up on the set for that film gave dad the incredible gift of their support before he passed away. Have you seen it yet? What did you think? I loved seeing so many of the characters and relationships develop, discovering a little more of their back stories, fears, and motivations. With all great sci-fi and fantasy films, after all, it’s the characters and exploration of what it means to be human that compel me to watch, not the action.

Another reason I’ve been a bit quiet on this blog recently is that I’ve been hard at work with our team creating the new ethical lifestyle website, A Better Place (read more about the concept behind this project, here). We are hoping to launch it later this summer, and to be able to reveal the new look and design over the next few weeks. It’s going well, but researching and testing all of the products for it is a lot of work, and taking rather a long time. It will be well worth the wait, though, and all the better for being done slowly and carefully. I can’t wait to share it with you!

Meanwhile, my daughter has been growing and learning and changing from a baby into a willful toddler. Putting her down to sleep has become like a more frustrating version of pick-up-sticks or Jenga because she is so busy all the time that she hates to switch off. Last night as she fell asleep in my arms she was twitching and saying “No!” fretfully under her breath. This is a difficult phase, and I’m trying to remember that it’s all natural and necessary development.

I wrote about figuring out how to divide the housework and improve communication with the person (or people) you live with, as well as a response to the New York Times’ article, No Kids for Me, Thanks, on the parents vs. non parents theme, both for Verily Magazine, as well as contributing to their weekly culture news roundup, While You Were Out (check it out, it’s published every Friday, and is a great way of catching up on the week’s happenings). I also wrote a piece about Monica Lewinsky’s brilliant and thought-provoking TED Talk on cyber bullying and the need for compassion and empathy online.

This piece from the New York Times about becoming the kind of person who “radiates an inner light” is one of the best I’ve read in a while. “These people can be in any walk of life. They seem deeply good. They listen well. They make you feel funny and valued. You often catch them looking after other people and as they do so their laugh is musical and their manner is infused with gratitude. They are not thinking about what wonderful work they are doing. They are not thinking about themselves at all,” David Brooks writes. I am privileged to have encountered many gems like this throughout my life, and I think a life spent trying to become more like this would be a life well spent.

I also love this piece that a friend shared with me recently about not being a kid person just because you have kids. Amongst other wise things, the author writes: “Sometimes we feel we must want ahead of time everything that happens or else we are being victimized by our own lives. In fact, our need to choose each event and its outcome might make us a nation of control freaks… More than anything else, though, my children have taught me to get outside of myself–to transcend the tyranny of my own wants.”

Finally, something else I came across recently and have been treasuring ever since is J.K. Rowling’s speech to Harvard graduates in the form of this beautiful little book, Very Good Lives: The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination. Profits from the sale of the book (which it took me about 10 minutes to read) go to her charity for children, Lumos. It is so uplifting, I really recommend it. Here’s a little nugget from it to whet your appetite: “Failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me.”

I hope you’re having a beautiful Spring and enjoying the sunshine, friends!